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A Road Ride Review to Better Understand Aerobic Training & Physiology

If you are wondering why a mountainous road ride review has appeared here at the Track Cycling Academy it is because I talk about some physiological changes which the body makes in the course of aerobic training...

These are all physiological parameters which are vital for success in pursuiting and bunch racing and even performance and recovery in sprint. I’m not convinced a sprinter ought to attempt 235km of mountains though…

I did intend to finish. I wasn’t sure how I would have the capacity to ride 235km and climb 4km without, this time, having actually trained for it. The event is the Peaks Challenge, Falls Creek. This is an event I have done previously, and this was my fifth, so I know the course and its demands. I have also worked as the Lantern Rouge in the Peaks Challenge, Gold Coast, in the hinterland behind the towns and surf beaches which will feature in the Commonwealth Games. As the Lantern Rouge the job is to ride at a pace which will bring you home in exactly the time of the cut-off for the event. At Falls Creek it is 13hrs. Which is quite a long day’s ride.

‘It’s good of you to put your body on the line for science’, said David Wadsworth, a friend, physio, bike-fitter and fellow coach. I entered the event months before, expecting to do a decent block of training. For various reasons this didn’t occur, but by remaining below lactate threshold, by consuming enough fuel and having the desire to complete the course could I finish an epic ride whilst blatantly unfit? I am, at last weigh-in sometime last year, about 75 or 76kg. It is not as if I have to haul 100kg up a slope. I ride a Trek Emonda, designed to climb, with Fulcrum Racing Zero wheels which I transfer from bike to bike. No great homage to aero here but as comfortable and light as the budget permits. An offset is that I have a saddle-bag which offends the purists as its capacity is such that I can stash two tubes, extra CO2, a gel, an energy bar, multi-tool etc as when I occasionally coach beginners from the bike, I like to have an effective kit bag and food to offer somebody I am passing who has completely run out, in their legs or in their pockets. ‘Are you OK’?...

Before inviting you to read to the bottom to see the finish time and a picture of a thoroughly fatigued rider crossing the line a bike-length ahead of the lantern rouge, announcing that with only 5 mins of core work, 2 mins of stretching, two interval sessions and a few kilometres per week, you too can achieve… I finished in the bus. At 188km, at the Blue Duck pub – where a good decision ought to be made, just before a ‘Bike Eating Bridge’, I selected not to attempt the upcoming mountain. At 9km at 9%, steeped in folklore, what awaited was the beast of a climb which represents the start – ‘but wait – there’s more’ – of the ascent of Falls Creek. In total it is 23km at 4.5%. I didn’t actually feel too bad when I stopped. No cramps – potentially avoided by the magnesium content of the electrolyte rich powder I put in one of my bottles, and assisted by never actually pushing hard on the pedals – and warm in the 30plus degree sun. This temperature suits me well, as sub-tropical living means that riding when it is hot is our normality, and anything under 20 degrees C needs to be accommodated with extra clothing. So I’ll update a prior sentence. I didn’t feel too bad because I stopped.   

Whilst sitting in the pub the Garmin reported that by this time, had this been either of two of the prior rides of this course, I would have already climbed the 1300m of additional altitude which lay ahead, already re-filled the bottles for one final time and already ridden past the high mountain flowers, highland lake, walking tracks and welcoming ski resort’s finish line, collected my finishers jersey and been eating the pasta handed out to all, who are generally delighted to see food not in gel form. In short, this time, I had been dropped by the two-years-ago-me by 50km. This time, however, I’d taken lots of photos, stopped for lunch at Dinner Plain and an afternoon sandwich in the picturesque town of Omeo, so this was the sort-of hare and the tortoise story where the tortoise does the stopping. 

So, we need here to look at what basic adaptions the body would have made had I done preparatory riding. Training. It’ll catch on:

Different textbooks or magazine articles will write about many different adaptions to aerobic work so if I list three or four improved values to improve performance somebody else might write about three or four others. As is the normality, different people will respond differently to the same training.

Increase in size and number of mitochondria

I’ve put two article references at the bottom if the detail is your cup of tea but in short, in skeletal muscle, one of the main roles of mitochondria is the production of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) — the energy currency of living organisms. Riding your bike will give you more mitochondria and number and efficiency of their action. This means better fuel delivery – a modern car engine versus an older version is the same – and an ability to preference fat stores over more rapidly chewing through your muscles’ glycogen stores.

Glycogen volume

Double dose of happiness here! So, the mitochondrial improvement helps save our muscles’ principal fuel source, glycogen, and training means we can store an extra 50 or so percent of the stuff. Nice. 

Plasma Volume

Blood is 45% cells and cell fragments, 55% plasma. Training can (I rarely write ‘will’, but this is as close as I get) give you more blood. Often this is written as an increase in plasma as if this is what is measured this is what the researcher will write. More plasma means you are better at regulating temperature and better at getting more oxygen to the muscles.

Muscle Capillarisation

Capillaries are blood vessels. Training gives you more of them so you have more avenues to get the blood, and therefore oxygen, to the muscles.

These adaptions would have meant that I could sit on a wattage that was far higher than I achieved on this occasion as I climbed the 7km hill of Tawonga Gap, the flattish 18km before the next hill, the 30km climb of Mt Hotham. Every section to be honest. This time I was 7kmh slower on average thinking of all the body’s adaptions I had not made via aerobic training. Pedalare, pedalare, pedalare, as Mr Coppi advised.

Bishop, Granata & Eynon, (2014). Can we optimise the exercise training prescription to maximise improvements in mitochondria function and content? BBA - General Subjects, 1840(4), pp.1266–1275.

 Jacobs, R.A. & Lundby, C., (2013). Mitochondria express enhanced quality as well as quantity in association with aerobic fitness across recreationally active individuals up to elite athletes. Journal of applied physiology 114(3), pp.344–50.